INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS UNDER SOCIALISM
‘ The opinion is commonly held by those whose views of things are determined by the sound of words, or who are given to swallowing ideas without sufficiently masticating them, that the chief aim of Socialism is the annihilation of the freedom of the individual, and that ergo anything that tends in this direction is pro tanto Socialistic, and anything that tends in the opposite direction pro tanto Individualistic, in the sense of anti-socialistic.
Because Individualism is the name given to the existing system of unrestricted competition, i.e., to the unlimited control by the individual of the productive and distributive powers of the community, in short, to the attempt of the individual to make himself absolute, or asserting himself at the cost of other individuals and of society as a whole, therefore these sapient critics think the essence of Socialism to consist in the limitation of individual freedom: We need scarcely say that the notion that the maximum of Socialism corresponds to the minimum of individual liberty is as preposterous a travesty of any great principle as ever entered the perversest head of man.
Socialism demands the greatest possible liberty (or licence if you will) of the individual, limited only by the condition of its not infringing on the principle of equality of liberty.
When the exercise of individual liberty is at the cost of equality of liberty; when it is a liberty of some at the expense of all, then necessarily Socialism steps in and proclaims the curtailment of such liberty. But in this case and only in this case, is Socialism not identical with the greatest possible extension of individual liberty.
For example the liberty of the individual to waste the resources of society by producing wealth in the most costly rather than the least costly manner, such as occupying land as flower gardens which ought to be used as cornfields, thereby entailing unnecessary labour on the rest, is not a liberty which would commend itself to a Social-Democratic community. But on the other hand, in all really “self-regarding actions,” that is, actions which directly affect the individual performing them alone, complete freedom is of the very essence of Socialism.
And yet one hears sometimes when a protest is made by a Socialist against some absurd and tyrannical infringement of individual liberty on the part of the existing law, some callow idiot tender the observation, “But surely that’s Anarchism not Socialism”. The reply is simple. Unless Anarchism had contained some element of truth in common with Socialism it would never have deceived so many good-hearted but weak-headed Socialists as it has done.
As a matter of fact, it contains two such elements, each of which it exaggerates and divorces from its connection, erecting it into a sacred principle independent of all else, thereby falsifying what would be true if viewed in subordination to other aspects of the Socialist problem. The first element of truth in Anarchism is that force is as justifiable in the hands of revolution as of reaction, and that there is no inherent reason why it should not be successfully resorted to. This Anarchism travesties in its cultus of violence as the sole justifiable method of working for revolutionary ends.
The Second element of truth is that above stated, to wit, the freedom of the individual, the non-coercion of the individual by the society, as an end to be striven for. This it certainly is, since the play of individual initiative is an essential of the development of society considered as an organic whole. But the Anarchist travestie this truth by converting it into the holy dogma of the abstract freedom of the individual at all times and in all cases. I say the abstract freedom, for rather than coerce the individual for what was obviously the collective good, his own included, by limiting him in the commission of the most preposterous acts of folly and destruction of both, the consistent Anarchist says: Perish society, perish individual.
In the desperate attempt to preserve the abstract and formal appearance of freedom the aforesaid Anarchist is willing to fling its reality to the winds. For the reality of human freedom, if not of human existence, implies organisation based on social evolution, which is incompatible with the idea of absolute formal autonomy of the individual. The only sphere in which the individual can claim absolute right to autonomy is in that of those self-regarding actions which do not in any direct manner touch his relation to social life and in these Socialism demands it as completely as any Individualist can desire. But in things as constituting the fibre of social existence, as such, such as economics, that is, the production, distribution and regulation of the necessaries of life, such autonomy must inevitably mean the re-enslavement of man under the forces of nature.. . . . . . . ’
Extract from Individual Rights Under Socialism by E. Belfort Bax – 1891